Life can be such a delightful Drag!

Priscilla
LES Girls: Tick/Mitzi (Daniel Buys), Bernadette (David Dennis) and Adam/Felicia (Phillip Schnetler), giving it shtick.

What happens when three drag queens decide to turn a new page on life, armed with a bus named Priscilla, lots of shoes and an urge to strut their stuff in the Great Australian Outback? The world turns on its heel, glitter and tears characterise the moves and you, in the audience, probably really do have the most fun you can have in a theatre. The stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert is simply as good as it gets.

When you watch the original eponymous film which first saw light of day in 1994, you get a very real sense of the scrappy mismatched wildness that characterises sheer unadulterated camp ramped up to the max. On paper, it might be difficult to imagine how this utterly fabulous film could be translated into a stage production, but you’re in safe hands: the international and local creative teams behind this project have produced something uniquely beautiful and majestic in its visual glossolalia and kaleidoscope of sexual jokes and nuance, replete with technological tricks and surprises all along the way.

The tour de force performance is that of David Dennis playing Bernadette, the character who is undergoing gender reassignment, has a Les Girls history and is nursing a broken heart beneath that spirit of fire and all those wigs. While Mitzi (Daniel Buys) and Felicia (Phillip Schnetler) are in fine form, great eyelashes and performative splendour, when Bernadette’s on stage, she’s where your eyes are. But the hero in the narrative itself is the character of Bob, a redneck with vision and sensitivity, played with true aplomb and sheer grit by James Borthwick. The kernel of the tale of Priscilla is not only about acceptance and the magic of lip syncing your way through life, it’s also about the meaning of love and reflects very astutely on how sex is secondary to what love is about.

But there’s no smarmy soppiness in this brightly coloured essay on the madness and freedom of being able to stand on top of a bus in the middle of a desert and belt your heart out to an aria from La Traviata. It’s Drag with a capital ‘D’, which is about all the vagaries and joys of performing on stage as it challenges gender expectations. By the same token, it doesn’t hold back on the ugly face of homophobia and gay bashing that remains a part of being different in the world.

Generally, a show with a big cast, lots of energy and all the tricks in the make up bag that you can conceive of, is a great hiding place for inferior performances. That doesn’t happen here: Priscilla hides no one, and the ensemble, from the three divas suspended from the sky (Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Candida Mosoma and Thembeka Mnguni) to the yellow dragons and acid green cream cakes and shocking pink paintbrushes all dancing in sequence, to the cameo which features the child of Mitzi, are utterly fabulous – the choreography is tight and on form, and the costumes are unbelievable in their wildness and wisdom, appropriately grotesque luridness, speedy changes and sense of freedom.

With a sound track that melds everything from the Village People to Tina Turner, Cindy Lauper to Kylie Minogue, Priscilla’s sound is pastiche with a tone of saccharine and it celebrates difference with abandon. It’s a show that will continue reverberating in your heart for months.

  • Priscilla Queen of the Desert: the Musical is based on the book by Stephan Elliott (who also wrote the original motion picture) and Allan Scott and directed and developed for the stage by Simon Phillips. Anton Luitingh is the resident director. It features designed by Brian Thomson (bus concept and set), Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (costumes), Nicky Schlieper and Per Hörding (lighting), Michael Waters and Mark Malherbe (sound), Cassie Hanlon (make up), Bryan Schimmel (music director), Ross Coleman, Andrew Hallsworth and Duane Alexander (choreography) and Stephen Murphy and Charlie Hull (orchestration, musical arrangement and supervision). It is performed by James Borthwick, Donae Brazer, Daniel Buys, Taryn-Lee Buys, David Dennis, Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Darius Engelbrecht, Ryan Flynn, Michael Fullard, Zane Gillion, Nadine Grobbelaar, Craig Hawks, Chantal Herman, Samuel Hyde, Dirk Joubert, Thembeka Mnguni, Candida Mosoma, Tshepo Ncokoane, Henk Opperman, Jonathan Raath, Phillip Schnetler, Logan Timbre,  Candice van Litsenborgh and Michael William Wallace. The child cast comprises Jack Fokkens, Jagger Vosloo and Alexander Wallace (Cape Town) and Ashton Mervis, Michael Fry and Levi Maron (Johannesburg). And the orchestra under Bryan Schimmel comprises Kevin Kraak (keyboard), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitars), Luca de Bellis (drums), Roger Hobbs (bass), Camron Andrews (reeds), Lorenzo Blignault (trumpet/flugelhorn), Nick Green (trombone), Zbigniew Kobak (trombone) and Pieter Ross (standby keyboard). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino Fourways until June 18. Visit www.showtime.co.za

Let’s hear it for the boys

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CLOSE every door to me: Wonderfully refined Earl Gregory plays Joseph. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za

IF THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph extravaganza is what gets your mojo pumping, look no further. This show is replete with utterly fabulous male performers, a song repertoire that’s mesmerising and upbeat and a hodge-podge of music references that may turn your head, if the booming deep bass and strobe lights don’t. It does, however, not do justice to the women onstage.

This Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a boys’ show. Featuring imminently satisfying choreography and a beautiful cast of young men, in tune with the biblical saga of Jacob and his dozen sons, the work is non-stop all the way. And with Earl Gregory once again apprising the eponymous role, it flies. Gregory’s refined performance sets up a rich counterplay between the rambunctiousness of the rest of the brothers, lending you guttural insight into the basic lines of the story: He’s the favourite, he gets the coat, they’re jealous and get rid of him, but he manages to find his way to the top again.

And that is one of the downsides of this work: the narrative is chopped into its basics and loses nuance. And this happens because of technical challenges. For one thing, this show’s sound is very big. In fact, it’s bigger than the venue. The casualty, in such a situation is the clarity of the lyrics. If you come to see Joseph because you want a bit of a biblical tale with lovely tunes in your life, you might feel disappointed.  The Joseph story, arguably as sexy as the Jesus Christ saga in a musical interpretation on this scale, gets lost. Instead you will see something hard edged and blingy, with ramped up melodrama rather than sentimentality.

This is because there’s not only a huge mix of cultural references in the original version bringing everything from an Elvis-like Pharoah (Jonathan Roxmouth) to South American tango and French ballads into the mix, but also because director Paul Warwick Griffin mashes this up further with  South African references and lyrics which are rejigged in parts. The result is a party. A happy, flashy party, but still, a party, rather than a bible tale.

While the reference to the Guptas remains culturally dodgy – they are, after all, Indian and not Midianite – and many of the musical digressions get a little carried away with themselves, you need to roll with the flow of this otherwise tightly woven piece.

The greatest downfall, however, is the women. Dressed in seriously unflattering costumes, and crudely choreographed, they feel compromised. Rather than seductive, Potiphar’s wife (Thalia Burt) is pushed into grotesque intercourse-evocative manoeuvres with her male slaves, in a kind of Rocky Horror Show meets ancient Egyptian shlock scene, which leave little to the imagination. Also the “adoring girls” – what they’re named in the programme – are little more than fluff on the scene.

In the performance on which this review is premised, Raquel Munn played the narrator; she tried  hard to embrace this production with a big smile and a projected persona, but simply doesn’t have the sense of authority onstage to be convincing.

And yes, while strobes and booming basses are the order of the day, it isn’t direct sensory assault for the full duration of the show and elements like Joseph’s time incarcerated are handled with a quiet starkness that challenges the noisiness of the rest of the piece and stands out rather exquisitely.

In all, it’s a happy lovely party of a story with overriding themes of brotherly jealousy, the horror of the loss of a son, lots of gyrating hips and flashy costumes, and an ultimate celebration of the victim as hero. If you can overlook its flaws, don’t mind the surprise strobes and want to see some fine young men jiggling their stuff with pizzazz and confidence, this one’s for you.

  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with original lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber is directed by Paul Warwick Griffin. It is designed by Duane Alexander (choreographer), Niall Griffin (costumes), Gareth Hewitt Williams (lighting), Mark Malherbe (sound) and Louis Zurnamer (musical direction), and performed by Thalia Burt, Emile Doubell, Louise Duhain, Richard Gau, Calvyn Grandling, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Èmil Haarhoff, Kyle Jardine, Kent Jeycocke, Venolia Manale, Michael McMeeking, Kenneth Meyer, Raquel Munn, Nádine, Jarryd Nurden, Dean Roberts, Jonathan Roxmouth, Sonwabiso Sakuba, Stephan van der Walt and Evan van Soest, with music by Louis Zurnamer (piano), James Lombard (Drums), Ryno Zeelie (additional guitar) and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (other instruments), at The Pieter Toerien Theatre in Montecasino, Fourways until January 29 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, February 16 to April 8. Visit www.pietertoerien.co.za

Ultimate schmaltz meets impeccable polish

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COME, boy: The love for the urchin (Emma-Rose Blacher) and the stray. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze

Children with their dogs in a tale about orphans during the years of the 1930s Depression – one that ends with a resounding happily-ever-after: It’s a flawless recipe for absolute schmaltz overload, for most directors, performers and producers. This version of Annie, however, replete with a significant child cast – in fact, with three alternative child casts – is so well honed, so infinitesimally plotted and so carefully crafted that it really flies: from the set to the cast to the choreography to the behaviour of the dog, it’s a tight ship of a show and gives dignity to the notion of ultimate schmaltz.

When the eponymous little girl (Emma-Rose Blacher) with her characteristic red hair and her impeccably wretched orphan-Annie brown cardigan emerges on stage after the dormitory scene, she will melt your heart and blow your mind at the same time. Exuding a confidence way beyond her 12 years, Blacher presents the real deal in musical theatre’s hope for the future: she can sing, she can act, she can dance and her interface with her peers and adult performers is completely flawless. She lends the complicated character of Annie who has dreams and hopes in a harsh reality, endearing credibility. And this from an overwhelmingly enormous stage, in front of a packed audience.

Indeed, with all eyes and all spotlights on her, it is difficult to drag your eyes into other aspects of the work: It is beautifully directed in such a way that the child central to the tale never fades under the embrace of the story, which reaches from America’s New Deal to an interface with Roosevelt (Mike Huff), a navigation into the poverty of just-post-Depression America where morals and lives were fraying at the seams. Annie remains in the spotlight through incredibly beautiful and authentic costume changes and set shifts which will set your heart aflutter.

With Neels Claasen in the role of Daddy Warbucks (on opening night), and Charon Williams-Ros as the deliciously nasty and utterly morally flawed persona of Miss Hannigan, the work is satisfyingly tight, perfectly clear and as articulate as a comic book in the values it espouses. It’s one of those family shows that will leave you with hope in your heart and encourage you to remember why you need to have dreams for the future, even if everything feels broken and on the cusp of self-destruction

The casualty in your experience of this work, however, may be manifest in two areas: the audience around you and the hard-boiledness of the production. But, you may protest, the more hard-boiled the better? In an age where digital technology is able to remove every speck of dust, uncertainty or scratch in a musical performance, you yearn for the soft-edged nuances you get from listening to vinyl.

Effectively, Annie, which is crafted as a franchise production to tour the world and features the enormous creative input of performers, has a kind of colour-by-number status. But don’t get me wrong: this is not an easy thing to emulate, from its plotting to its choreography, the training of local performers to the ultimate success of the work – consider pieces such as Dreamgirls, Chicago, Hairspray and others of that ilk that have graced South African stages in the last few years. Rather, the effects of this beautiful show are designed so that they may be exactly replicated, whether the work is being staged in Johannesburg or Honolulu. And this is where the hard-boiledness comes in: the work is so tight, so hard-edged in its values that it may feel ever so slightly too slick for comfort.

But your comfort zones might be upset for another reason too: It’s an odd reality that when the average theatre goer hears that a work is about children, or features children, they round up their tousle-headed sproglets, wipe their noses, change their nappies and whip them off to a fully fledged three hour long theatre production with loud booming noises, a complex political story, flashing lights and expensive tickets. And what happens? The sproglet in question howls its head off and is severely traumatised by the event. To say nothing of what it does for the audience with the misfortune to be seated within earshot of them. The theatre simply cannot be held responsible when an audience member flagrantly ignores the “no under 3” proscription on the booking pack: no one wants a fight with an unhappy patron minutes before the curtain rises. Or should they? Either way, this ain’t a show for the littlies, but it’s as good as it gets in terms of a life-shaking experience for the bigger children in the audience as it graciously skates through 1930s aesthetics, values and ethos.

  • Annie, based on the eponymous book by Thomas Meeham is directed by Nikolai Foster and Nick Winston. It features design by Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics), Nick Winston (choreography), George Dyer (orchestration), Colin Richmond (set and costumes), Mark Malherbe (sound), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Bryan Schimmel (musical direction). It is performed by Duane Alexander, Neels Claasen, Stefania du Toit, Michael Fullard, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Delray Halgryn, Mike Huff, Stephen Jubber, Cat Lane, Michelle Lane, Anton Luitingh, Hope Maimane, Ben Mundy, Jenna Robinson Child, Taryn Sudding, Candice van Litsenborgh, Jonathan Raath, Richard Vorster and Charon Williams-Ros, with three child casts: Team Empire, comprising Emma-Rose Blacher, Kezia du Plessis, Talicia Marirti, Bonisiwe Nomoyi, Gemma Scarcella, Kyra Teague and Luca Teague; Team Madison, comprising Annika de Beer, Caitlin Dicker, Hannah Hayword, Mikayla Levick, Kundai Nyama, Omolola Peguillan and Anastasia Schroder; and Team Rockerfeller comprising Ariane Angelopoulo, Lilla Fleischmann, Kelli Hollander, Teagan McGinley, Mikah Smith, Lisa Solomon and Rachelle Weiss. [This review is premised on the performance of team Empire]. The live orchestra, under the baton of Bryan Schimmel and Kevin Kraak comprises Serge Cuca/Kevin Cook (violin), Carl James Ashford (flute, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax), Donny Bouwer/Braam van Tonder/Michael Magner (trumpet, flugelhorn), Zbigniew Kobak/Nick Green (trombone, euphonium), Cobi van Wyk (percussion). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino in Fourways until November 27 and at Artscape Opera House in Cape Town December 2-January 8, 2017. Booking at Computicket.

What a glorious show!

singin
LAUGHING AT CLOUDS: Grant Almirall plays Gene Kelly playing Don Lockwood. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre

Quite often, in the arts, you find yourself experiencing something that trails a long history of film  and stage musicals, of iconic dance moves and schmaltzy narrative that has irrevocably slipped into cliché. Mostly, this kind of candy floss cuteness that is passed down from generation to generation gets tired not only in its message but in its delivery. Occasionally it gets spoofed. But very seldom, are you privileged enough to see something in this traditional line that has been so flawlessly and meticulously translated onto the stage with so much love that you can weep at its impeccable beauty and authenticity, as you are swept away on the lyrical romance that it promises – regardless of who you are. This is what you can anticipate in Singin’ in the Rain, currently onstage at Teatro.

We’re in New York. It’s 1927. The world is in a state of emotional and creative high – it’s just weathered a world war and feels on the cusp of another. There’s a frenetic sense of aggressive positivity and possibility in the air. And culture, by way of film, is shifting and shaking its own identity into terrain unmarked by the technology of the time: the talkie is going through its birth pangs.

Of course, Singin’ in the Rain was a 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film about films that made the leads, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds – in the respective roles of silent movie star, Don Lockwood and chorus girl Kathy Selden – seriously famous, effectively putting them on a par with the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s ear in terms of universal cultural recognition – but more than the performance of Kelly and Reynolds, it’s the choreography and the music and how they fit together that are quintessentially so happy that they’re unforgettable.

So, here we have a stage version of this enormous musical with a giant reputation and a whole bunch of theatre challenges – from a star who has to sing and talk squeakily and obnoxiously out of sync and out of tune (Lina Lamont, played by Taryn-Lee Hudson) to the imperative of really making it rain on stage. And they’ve done it. They’ve really done it.

Every little nuance, every little 1920s sashay and fringe, and every big gesture of love and hate, of spite and malice and new ideas is as frisky and fresh – and genuinely funny – as it was onscreen in 1952. This is a flawless show, which unapologetically presents values that may be considered politically inappropriate in our contemporary world, but it’s a show, headlined by Grant Almirall and Bethany Dickson as Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden respectively, that will leave you with a dance in your head and a sense of hope in your heart.

Featuring a cast of both seasoned and young performers, it’s a show that fits together like clockwork and runs seamlessly, but never feels staid or formulaic. It seems a very early comment to make in the year, but it’s sincere: if you treat yourself to one big musical this year, make it this one.

  • Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Jonathan Church, is written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and features songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. It is designed by Simon Higlett (set and costumes), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Ian William Galloway (video), Robert Scott (music supervisor), Larry Wilcox and Larry Blank (orchestration), Andrew Wright and Kelly Evins Prouse (choreography). It is performed by Duane Alexander Grant Almirall, James Borthwick, Bethany Dickson, Taryn-Lee Hudson, Anne Power, Mark Richardson and Steven van Wyk, supported by an ensemble comprising Claire Boswell, Thalia Burt, Mila de Biaggi, Stefania Du Toit, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Richard Gau, Samuel Hyde, Kent Jeycocke, Catherine Lane, Michelle Lane, Sebe Leotlela, Anton Luitingh, Hope Maimane, Kenneth Meyer, Raquel Munn, LJ Nelson, Jarryd Nurden, Stephan van der Walt and Richard Vorster. It features a live orchestra under the direction of keyboardists Louis Zurnamer and Kevin Kraak: Jacobus van Wyk (drums), Graham Strickland (double bass), Carl Ashford (reed), Brian Smith (reed), Leagh Rankin (reed), Mike Blake (trumpet), Mike Magner (trumpet) and Nick Green (trombone). It is at Teatro, Montecasino until March 13. Visit www.pietertoerien.co.za
  • And what does this say about South African audiences? Read this piece.